Posts Tagged ‘evolution of language’

Marc Hauser (et al including Chomsky) is back on language evolution

May 1, 2014

The rehabilitation of Marc Hauser continues and he along with many others have just published a review about language evolution in Frontiers in Psychology.  Links to the Abstract and the paper (provisional) are given below but they argue that the “explosion of research in the last 40 years” has made little progress. Essentially, they say (to paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld) :

With regard to the biological evolution of language, we don’t know much and we don’t even know what we don’t know. But now we can at least list some areas that we know that we don’t know. 

Hauser is the lead author and gives his affiliation as Risk Eraser which is engaged in brain training for kids at risk.

Marc D. Hauser, Charles Yang, Robert C. Berwick, Ian Tattersall, Michael Ryan,Jeffrey Watumull, Noam Chomsky and Richard Lewontin, The mystery of language evolution, Front. Psychol., doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2014.00401

Abstract: Understanding the evolution of language requires evidence regarding origins and processes that led to change. In the last 40 years, there has been an explosion of research on this problem as well as a sense that considerable progress has been made. We argue instead that the richness of ideas is accompanied by a poverty of evidence, with essentially no explanation of how and why our linguistic computations and representations evolved. We show that, to date, 1) studies of nonhuman animals provide virtually no relevant parallels to human linguistic communication, and none to the underlying biological capacity; 2) the fossil and archaeological evidence does not inform our understanding of the computations and representations of our earliest ancestors, leaving details of origins and selective pressure unresolved; 3) our understanding of the genetics of language is so impoverished that there is little hope of connecting genes to linguistic processes any time soon; 4) all modeling attempts have made unfounded assumptions, and have provided no empirical tests, thus leaving any insights into language’s origins unverifiable. Based on the current state of evidence, we submit that the most fundamental questions about the origins and evolution of our linguistic capacity remain as mysterious as ever, with considerable uncertainty about the discovery of either relevant or conclusive evidence that can adjudicate among the many open hypotheses. We conclude by presenting some suggestions about possible paths forward.

Not knowing something we don’t know at least moves it into the realm of things we know we don’t know and as such is quite valuable. 
The very readable paper (provisional) is available hereHauser Provisional Evolution of language

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